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CD: Crotchet

Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Kissin Plays Chopin
Full details of contents at end of review
Evgeny Kissin (piano)
rec. CDs 1-2: live, February 1993, Carnegie Hall, NYC; CD 3: 5-7 August 1998; CD 4: 30 July-1 August 1999, Southwest German Radio Studio, Freiburg; CD 5: live, 26 July 2004, Médran Hall, Verbier, Switzerland
BMG-RCA RED SEAL 88697 625302 [5 CDs: 317:31]

Experience Classicsonline

This neat little collection represents a life-saver for inefficient and addle-brained CD collectors such as myself. Far from being one of those eagle-eyed professionals who take a little notebook filled with the titles for which they are seeking, I can never remember which volumes I have of any particular set. Aside from a plea of poverty which only holds true after the first of the month these days, I never managed to get further than Volume 2 of RCA’s Carnegie Hall Chopin recordings. Every time I put it on I would think to myself, ‘wow, this is good, I must look out for the others in the set’, and never thought of them while out in the wild. At last RCA have given up in despair on me and my kind and brought all of Kissin’s RCA Chopin albums together in a 5 CD folding case with a see-thru concertina of trays which is interesting, but sometime a bit like wresting your discs from a feisty Rubik style puzzle. 

If we’re talking puzzles, one of those I have to confront here is the love-hate polarisations which Evgeny Kissin seems to arouse. I would hope to pride myself on a certain amount of objectivity, but have to say my past experiences have generally led me to expect a positive response from my overworked faculties. Yes, there are indeed some flaws, and you have to be prepared to take a powerfully masculine kind of Chopin which may not be to everyone’s taste, possibly not even Chopin’s. For me the joy of having a piano sound you can bite on like a big piece of balsa wood and a sense of effusive joy in much of this live music-making has value beyond price.

The first two CDs of this set are volumes 1 and 2 of Kissin’s remarkable, indeed almost legendary Carnegie Hall recital in 1993, when he was only just into his twenties. Interestingly, both the original discs and this re-release emphasise the music rather than the performer in the booklet notes, something which seems more often than not to have been turned on its head in recent times. These are very much live recordings, and while the audience is generally held well back through a useful amount of presence in the piano sound, there are those whose applause can start well before the final notes of a piece have decayed. This is a minor point and not one aimed at putting anyone off - just one of the few trade-offs in having such a magnificently heroic and symphonic Polonaise Op.44. It’s not all power playing, and there is a fine transparency in the throw-away brilliance of the Grande valse Op.42 for instance, and the Nocturne op.27 No.1 is given a marvellous sense of searching mystery. The Scherzo No.2 Op.31 takes on the quality of Mussorgsky in some of its darting eccentricities, and whatever you think, you can’t call it dull.

That was the quality which kept bringing me back to volume 2, the one nagging me from within all the other Chopin discs to be joined by more of similar. The Sonata No.3 under Kissin’s fingers becomes an elusive masterwork, one which is filled with marvellous moments, but demands that you come and listen again to make sense of some of the wilder hills and troughs. Kissin’s performance flows, but like any complicated text he demands your full attention otherwise you are going to be left behind: he demands you raise your game to meet his, rather than compromising with easier gestures and a narrower dynamic range. Despite all the ‘wow’ factor, in the quicksilver figuration of the Scherzo for instance, Kissin builds a beautiful structure from the almost Brucknerian melodic moments in the Largo. Back to plenty of power in the Finale, but within the superhuman pianism there is so much dynamic variety, so many layers and so much intricate detail that I refute those who would reject this as so much brutalism. This is high drama, but with a turbulent and confrontational message rather than just a bravura display - yes, there is an element of young wizard’s showmanship involved, but if you can allow yourself to be carried along on the crest of Kissin’s wave then you’ll find yourself crying ‘bravo’ at the loudspeakers by the end, disturbing the neighbours and frightening the cat.

It’s Mazurkas all the way after this brain-boiler of a sonata, and the more relaxed moods and open textures are a welcome change. Kissin is and remains entirely inventive and surprising in these pieces. Every time I come back to these I find myself thinking ‘I don’t remember that’, which is good - every time feels like a kind of first time, as if you were there at the concert. The poignancy of a Mazurka Op.68 No.4 set against the witty wiles of Op.30 No.3 and contrasts of Op.63 No.1 create an endlessly fascinating programme, the ordering of the pieces in the recital creating its own dynamic pace, and with the eternally wonderful Op.17 No.4 as a penultimate reward.

Discs three and four bring us away from the hothouse atmosphere of Carnegie Hall live, and into the cooler world of the SWF Freiburg studios. Kissin takes his time over the Ballades, emphasising their intensity but without becoming mired in too much indulgence. Where it counts, Kissin bursts out into compulsive dance rhythms or effulgent melodic gestures, and the rewards compensate for moments where density of pianistic technique might create protestations of over-blown-ness. Let’s face it, if you can’t bear titanic pianism then Evgeny Kissin may not be your cup of tea, but if you can make it past your own preconceptions then the softer centre he can show may persuade you that there is more to his musicianship than the merely prodigious. Have a listen to the Ballade No.4 Op.52. It’s nice, but not chocolate box ‘nice’: the melodic line sings, but isn’t allowed to rest on its laurels, moving forward almost against the accompaniment and showing you where some of Rachmaninov comes from, in the colours, shapes, structures and lines of almost the entire piece. Kissin builds and weighs his moments against the form of the piece as a whole, not lingering, but moulding time and volumes of sonority.

With time suspended in the Berceuse Op.57, another big shape challenge in the Barcarolle Op.60 and more quicksilver inventiveness in the Scherzo op.54 I’m quite easily sold on CD 3. The Preludes Op.28 on disc 4 have been reviewed elsewhere on this site, and were not approved of by David Wright, who preferred Vladimir Ashkenazy. I’m not going in for a great deal of comparisons in this review, partly because I consider this box to be just a big bouncy bargain and not to be missed on any account, but also because Kissin is rather a phenomenon in his own right, and deserving of an audition in this repertoire even where it is clear that other versions have their own right to existence. I do have Garrick Ohlsson resonating in my ears in this cycle however, so was intrigued to hear how different Kissin’s version is. Kissin seems more able to make the Preludes Op.28 into more of a coherent whole rather than a set of disparate pieces, and for this alone I value his recording, even though the diving in the climax of No.4 and some other moments take a bit of getting used to. Rather overdone rubato is a quality of these brief pieces which Kissin does seem rather willing to adopt, and I would agree that in numerous cases the music is better left speaking more for itself. As part of the set as a whole it is still a pretty stunning collection however, even though there are some strange engineering moments, such as the volume dropping 28 seconds in and reviving at 40 seconds of the Prelude No.9, and again between 00:54 and 1:10 or so - as if we didn’t know the difference between soft playing and someone mucking about with the mixing desk, bah. As with the live Sonata No.3, Kissin is high octane with the Sonata No.2, taking Chopin’s mating of disparate themes and textures head-on and revelling in their forward-looking modernity. I like the character of this performance, though can see how it might disturb those of a more sensitive disposition. At some points you can not only hear the strings bending but almost sense the entire piano changing shape under Kissin’s mighty touché. Once again however there are plenty of elegant and sensitive layers under the fearsome technique, and the famous Marche funèbre is both a defiant cry from and a fascinating exploration of the mysteries of ‘the other side’. The presto Finale sounds like the wind machine from a piece by Olivier Messiaen. CD 4 ends with the eternally heroic Polonaise Op.53 which as you might imagine suits Kissin down to the ground. He takes it at quite a pace, reading it less as a statement of noble pride as a fast ride in a Porsche adorned with gold-leaf. Not my favourite interpretation, but impressive for all that.

Disc 5 brings us back to where Kissin sounds best in this collection, live. Given on 26 July 2004 in the Médran Hall in the mountain landscape of Verbier in Switzerland, the slightly more brittle piano sound in the SWF recordings is once again brought back into full and succulent sonority. More than ten years on from Carnegie Hall, Kissin isn’t quite so spectacularly showy, though this has to do with the repertoire in the recital, and there is no lack in fireworks when in full flight. It would be nice to be able to see this as the crowning achievement to top off this set, but if anything the rather stop-start rubato which can be a bit disturbing in the other discs is taken to new heights in these Polonaises and Impromptus. Again, there is much beautiful and massively impressive playing, but if you turn the volume down and light a candle or two you could be listening to a rather precocious restaurant pianist, meandering his way through famous pieces and stretching the time with elastic abandon. This is not entirely fair, but we’re moving dangerously close at times, and one might have hoped that greater maturity would have introduced a closer affinity to the composer Chopin rather than towards the pianist interpreting like mad. Kissin’s prowess as a pianist means that technical obstacles cease to exist, or at least appear so to do, so the only direction to go is in a kind of re-invention of the music into more and more personal directions. I’m not particularly offended by these performances and indeed, I enjoy the live ‘vibe’ which comes with the recording. There are indeed pieces with which Kissin can grab you, set your emotions into turmoil, like the darkly brooding Polonaise Op.40 No.2, but I do however have to admit feeling more comfortable with the greater sense of musical coherence Garrick Ohlsson brings in most of these pieces. 

At 5 CDs for the price of around two and a half discs this is a good deal if you are just embarking on your voyage of discovery with Evgeny Kissin or if, like me, you have one lonely volume of the RCA recordings knocking around which you bring out when no-one else will do and you simply must have some real piano playing. I’m not the only commentator to harp on about Kissin’s perceived flaws in some of these works, and I have to admit that after many hours of concentrated listening I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s better taken in smaller doses than for marathon sessions. All things considered I do give this set a big recommendation. It’s one of those things every piano collection should have around, for those times when you want to go LARGE with Chopin. Having encountered several different approaches in Chopin’s piano works of late, including the more ‘authentic’ touch of Alice Sara Ott, I’ve been made more than usually aware that there are many ways to skin the Chopin cat. Kissin’s is not the only way, but for a uniquely powerful and pianistic legacy this is one collection you won’t want to be avoiding, and I should hope there will be more to come as well.

Dominy Clements 

Full List of contents
CD 1 [68:24]
Fantasie in F minor/A flat major, B 137/Op. 49 (1841) [13:59] 
Waltz in A flat major, B 131/Op. 42 "Grande Valse" [3:39]
Waltz, Op. 34: no 2 in A minor, B 64 (1831) [6:16]
Waltz, Op. 34: no 1 in A flat major, B 94 "Valse brillante" (1835) [4:54] 
Polonaise in F sharp minor, B 135/Op. 44 (1840-1841) [11:57]
Nocturne, B 106/Op. 32: no 2 in A flat major (1836-1837) [5:39]
Nocturne, Op. 27: no 1 in C sharp minor (1835) [5:47] 
Nocturne, Op. 27: no 2 in D flat major, B (1835) [6:06]
Scherzo no 2 in B flat minor/D flat major, B 111/Op. 31 [10:07]

CD 2 [63:58]
Sonata for Piano no 3 in B minor, B 155/Op. 58 (1844) [ 
Mazurka, B 162/Op. 63: no 2 in F minor (1846) [1:46]
Mazurka, B 153/Op. 56: no 2 in C major(1843) [1:40]
Mazurka, B 162/Op. 63: no 3 in C sharp minor (1846) [1:54]
Mazurka, B 105/Op. 30: no 3 in D flat major (1836-1837) [2:41]
Mazurka, Op. 68: no 4 in F minor, B 168 (1849) [1:58] 
Mazurka, B 145/Op. 50: no 1 in G major (1842) [2:14]
Mazurka, B 145/Op. 50: no 3 in C sharp minor (1842) [2:14]
Mazurka, B 115/Op. 33: no 2 in D major (1837-1838) [2:11]
Mazurka, B 89/Op. 24: no 4 in B flat minor (1834-1835) [5:17]
Mazurka, B 157/Op. 59: no 3 in F sharp minor (1845) [3:21]
Mazurka, B 77/Op. 17: no 4 in A minor (1832-1833) [4:55]
Mazurka, B 162/Op. 63: no 1 in B major (1846) [2:27]

CD 3 [61:31]
Ballade no 1 in G minor, B 66/Op. 23 (1831-1835) [9:51]
Ballade no 2 in F major/a minor, B 102/Op. 38 (1836-1839) [7:35] 
Ballade no 3 in A flat major, B 136/Op. 47 (1840-1841) [8:00]
Ballade no 4 in F minor, B 146/Op. 52 (1842) [11:40]
Berceuse in D flat major, B 154/Op. 57 (1844) [4:42]
Barcarolle in F sharp major, B 158/Op. 60 (1845-1846) [9:01]
Scherzo no 4 in E major, B 148/Op. 54 (1842) [10:42]

CD 4 [66:38]
24 Preludes, Op. 28 (1836-1839) 
Sonata no 2 in B flat minor, B 128/Op. 35 "Funeral March" (1837-1839)
Polonaise in A flat major, B 147/Op. 53 "Heroic" (1842) [6:28] 

CD 5 [57:00]
2 Polonaises, B 90/Op. 26 (1834-1835) [18:37]
Impromptu no 1 in A flat major, B 110/Op. 29 (1837) [4:19]
Impromptu no 2 in F sharp major, B 129/Op. 36 (1839) [5:47]
Impromptu no 3 in G flat major, b 149/Op. 51 (1842) [6:17]
Impromptu no 4 in C sharp minor, B 87/Op. 66 "Fantaisie-Impromptu" (1835) [5:51]
Polonaise, Op. 40: no 2 in C minor, B 121 (1839) [8:50]
Polonaise in A flat major, B 147/Op. 53 "Heroic" (1842) [7:19] 



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